Marvel Alternate Takes (

By:Arnold T. Blumberg
Date: Saturday, January 19, 2002

They look vaguely like the Marvel heroes we know, but they're not. For one thing, Bruce Banner looks a lot younger then when we saw him last. For another, Iron Man isn't Tony Stark at all, but an attractive young blonde with really big...eyes. And yes, almost every female character appears to have received, shall we say, excessive pneumatic enhancements. Let's just say that even if this series fails, it's bound to stay afloat for quite a bit longer due to the buoyancy of its heroines. What is it? It's the new Marvel "alternate reality," the Marvel Mangaverse.

Say what you will about this latest project from the House of Ideas, but there's no denying that the new editorial regime is keen to embark on a bold program of experimentation. Now in comic shops, MARVEL MANGAVERSE: NEW DAWN introduces a different take on the Marvel Universe-one in which all the familiar characters we've known and loved for forty years have been reinterpreted into manga-style heroes and villains. Based on the Japanese comic book tradition, the Marvel Mangaverse represents the publisher's latest plan to reimagine its stable of stars for a new audience, having already accomplished a similar goal by turning the clock back and introducing younger versions in the successful ULTIMATE line (more on that later).

But while the Mangaverse is currently getting all the attention, this is hardly the first time Marvel has dared to explore uncharted territory. Several times in the last twenty years, Marvel has introduced other universes, all of which flirted with disaster by either alienating old-timers or forging new paths that were just too strange or uninteresting. Let's take a closer look at a few of them, shall we?

The Marvel Mangaverse version of the Fantastic Four

THE NEW UNIVERSE - Well, it sure sounded like a good idea at the time. 1986 saw the debut of the first-ever distinctly different fictional reality from the folks who brought us Spider-Man and the FF. Spearheaded by titles like STAR BRAND, NIGHTMASK, CODENAME SPITFIRE and JUSTICE, the line was sparked by a rather solid idea. What if you took the real world, and then selectively added a few people who were blessed with special powers as a result of a mysterious "White Event?" The idea of superheroes in a realistic environment was a good one but it just didn't pan out; anyone who dared to crack the cover of KICKERS INC., in which football players became super-adventurers, can attest to that. By the time THE PITT disaster laid waste to part of that reality, nobody really cared. Later on, the New Universe was sort of folded into the primary reality as the Star Brand ended up under the stewardship of Quasar.

The "Heroes Reborn" line took the Marvel heroes into a pocket universe.

MARVEL 2099 - First of all, this wasn't even the line it was supposed to be. Those of us who paid attention back in 1992 remembered that originally, the Marvel Universe of the near future was to be chronicled by Stan Lee and John Byrne in a series dubbed "The Marvel World of Tomorrow." A dispute resulted in Byrne taking his part of the project - and all the completed artwork - with him, leaving Marvel without a near future for its stars. Lee and a cadre of other creators whipped up 2099 instead, with sterling examples of third-rate writing like RAVAGE and the marginally palatable SPIDER-MAN 2099. Byrne recycled his work into the superb

KICKERS INC. was a New Universe title that introduced a team of super football players. Yup.

2112 graphic novel, later woven into his equally superb Dark Horse series, THE NEXT MEN, while Marvel's 2099 line degenerated quickly and then lapsed into manga-style artwork and plotting before collapsing entirely...hey, wait a minute. Anyway, the idea of a near-future Marvel U would be reborn in the MC2 line, which would survive long enough to give us the wonderful SPIDER-GIRL ongoing series (following her debut in an issue of WHAT IF?) before mercifully joining its predecessor in darkness.

Miguel O'Hara was the Spidey of the future in SPIDER-MAN 2099.

HEROES REBORN - This ridiculous attempt to rethink (I hesitate to use the 21st century buzzword "reimagine") the Marvel heroes by handing them over to Image creators (known in the real world as "giving up"), removing them from their classic titles and placing them in a "pocket universe" with slightly different origins and interpersonal relationships, not only slapped long-time fans in the face but offered some of the worst artwork and scripting in the company's history. Of course, it wasn?t really Marvel?s work, but why quibble. Eventually, the entire thing - first introduced in 1996 - was dutifully unraveled in the "Heroes Return" arc two years later, but not before Marvel managed to milk the sorry affair for two - count 'em, two - #1 issues for every title they disrupted. That's one #1 for each "Heroes Reborn" series, and then another #1 for each reintroduction of a classic title. Although Marvel has restored the original high issue numbers that would have existed had the titles in question never been interrupted (they're usually printed underneath the "new" number and often reflected in our reviews when appropriate), some of us don't forgive or forget that easily. FANTASTIC FOUR #50...right.

Ultimate versions of Jean Grey and Spidey share the cover of ULTIMATE MARVEL TEAM-UP #11

The ULTIMATE line - Up to this point, you might get the impression that most of Marvel's alternate realities were curiosities at best, embarrassing failures at worst. And you'd be right (OK, I'm sure there's a fan of NIGHTMASK out there somewhere, but you better stay hidden - they put people like you to sleep). But in the last few years, as Marvel slowly revitalized its entire roster, they once again turned to the notion of a "reimagining" (there, I said it) in order to try to grab new readers. Headlined by series like ULTIMATE X-MEN and the runaway smash ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN ? scripted by one of our favorite people in comics, Brian Michael Bendis ? the ULTIMATE subgroup was a new, more youthful interpretation of the classic Marvel heroes for a new, more youthful audience. So far it seems to have established itself with strong stories, excellent artwork and a willingness to play with and against long-standing Marvel and comic book conventions. It seems that even as Marvel has relearned how to tell good stories in its regular titles, it's discovered the secret of crafting an entertaining alternate universe.

So, a few failures and one hit?oh yes, and SPIDER-GIRL. But does the success of the ULTIMATE line mean the Marvel alternate reality curse is broken? Does this bode well for the Mangaverse? Stay tuned, true believer-san.